December 29, 1890: Wounded Knee Massacre

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A Brief History

On December 29, 1890, the 7th Cavalry Regiment of the United States Army perpetrated a  massacre Native Americans of the Lakota People near Wounded Knee Creek in South Dakota.  Included among those killed were about 200 women and children.  (Note:  It was the 7th Cavalry under Lt. Col. George A. Custer that was massacred at the Little Big Horn River in 1873.)

Digging Deeper

The soldiers had rounded up about 120 Lakota men and over 240 Lakota women and children (numbers vary with source) on December 28th and had herded them back toward the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation intending to disarm the men the next day.  Prior to taking the weapons of the Lakota, the Army commander, Col. James Forsyth, had many of his 490 men surround the camp, including 4 artillery pieces.  The Lakota wanted to perform the Ghost Dance and the Col. Forsyth was impatient about disarming the Lakota that had the gall to wander off the reservation.

The Ghost Dance

Prior to this incident, the US Government had been moving the Native Americans around to smaller and smaller and less desirable locations for some time, creating animosity toward the government.  Tensions grew between the soldiers and the Lakota as some outspoken Lakota worked up their comrades.  As the soldiers gathered the weapons, a rifle discharged accidentally, creating instant panic among the soldiers who began killing Lakota as fast as they could!

The virtually disarmed Lakota fought back, but few had weapons.  The soldiers killed men, women and children indiscriminately, killing about 90 of the men and as many as over 200 women and children.  Perhaps half the Lakota dead were killed quickly in the first few minutes, the rest, including Chief Spotted Elk, were run down and killed by soldiers that were no longer under the control of their officers.

Indian Chief Spotted Elk lies dead after the massacre of Wounded Knee, 1890

The killing lasted about an hour. The Lakota managed to kill 25 soldiers outright, and wound another 39, 6 of which later died of their wounds.  It is highly possible if not likely that some of the killed or wounded soldiers were killed by “friendly fire” from their own Hotchkiss artillery pieces.

Col. Forsyth was relieved of command by his superior, General Miles, but reinstated at the behest of the Secretary of War.  Miles continued to impugn Forsyth over the massacre, but Forsyth managed to eventually get promoted to Major General.  Another poke in the eye to the Lakota and other Native Americans was the handing out of 20 Medals of Honor to soldiers, awards Native activists later tried to have rescinded.  (At that time, the only medal for valor in the US Army was the Medal of Honor.  It should not be confused with the status of the modern Medal of Honor.)

The plains Indians, including the Lakota, had been severely hindered by the slaughter of the bison on the Great Plains, an intentional campaign by the US Government to deprive Indians of their sustenance, forcing the Native tribes to live on reservations where at least they would not starve.  Obviously, the Native People felt they were being rounded up and held prisoner, unable to follow their nomadic lifestyle they had enjoyed for centuries (or millennia).

In 1990 the US Congress finally apologized for the massacre, and in 1965 the Wounded Knee Battlefield was declared a National Historic Landmark, and put on the National Register of Historic Places the following year.

US Attorney General Eric Holder laying a wreath at the site of the Wounded Knee Memorial

Although Wounded Knee is often called the last battle between Whites and Indians, another fight broke out the next day near the Pine Ridge Reservation although we were unable to find data on casualties).  Thus ended a conflict between European colonizers and nation builders and the original people on the lands of America, bringing the complicated questions about what “could have” and “should have” been done differently by the people that settled and built the United States in regards to the Native Americans.  Would it have been possible to build a great country without stealing the land by force?  Do the ends justify the means?  Please give us your opinions about this highly emotional subject.

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Historical Evidence

A fictionalized version of the “battle” has recently been depicted/referenced in the popular video game BioShock Infinite (2013).

For more information on the historic massacre, please see…

Richardson, Heather Cox.  Wounded Knee: Party Politics and the Road to an American Massacre.  Basic Books, 2011.

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.